National Geographic, Web Site Team

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Take a Web site launched six months ago by a 31-year-old entrepreneur. Combine with a respected, 112-year-old educational and research institution. What you get is the first major dot-com deal by the National Geographic Society.

National Geographic announced Monday that it is taking a 30 percent stake in iExplore, an online travel agent that offers trips to more than 150 countries through an array of tour operators.

Neither organization would disclose the financial terms involved, but National Geographic president John Fahey said the investment included licensing arrangements as well as cash.

``To our mind, this is a natural extension of what we do — writing about exotic places and then sending people there,'' Fahey said in an interview. ``Our feeling was, why invent this in shop — why not team with a place that's already up and running.''

The deal marks the latest busines initiative for National Geographic, a non-profit organization that is reshaping itself into a modern media player. Its cable TV channel is expanding rapidly overseas and is due to launch in the United States next year, and a tiny stake it took in the online map maker MapQuest ballooned in value after the company was acquired by America Online Inc.

But the arrangement with iExplore marks the first time that National Geographic will license its powerful brand name — often found in surveys to be among the most trusted in the world — to another organization.

iExplore will be able to use photos, stories and other material from National Geographic, including the yellow-bordered logo, to get viewers jazzed up about the trips offered through the site, which currently number about 5,000. National Geographic will have final say in how the material is presented.

In return for its name and cash, National Geographic gets a big piece of the company as well as the right to feature iExplore's trips on its own Web site. National Geographic recently launched its own line of tours, but those are aimed mainly at high-income travelers and often feature guidance from a writer or photographer from the magazine.

The association with an established brand name gives iExplore an immediate boost in visibility and credibility relative to other travel sites on the Web. George Deeb, the founder and head of iExplore, said he now expects to spend only $8 million next year on promotion versus the $16 million he had budgeted before cutting the deal.

Deeb, a former investment banker, started the company a year ago after becoming frustrated with having to deal with different travel agents to book his own trips, which have included glacier-climbing in Alaska and scuba diving in Belize.

Deeb sees a major opportunity in the growing field of adventure travel, a market already worth some $40 billion by his estimate, as more travelers tire of the usual destinations and seek out the thrill factor — and don't mind paying for it.

``We're aimed at baby boomers. They've bought their cars and their homes, and now they're buying experiences,'' Deeb said. ``There's a huge pent-up demand for adventure travel, but people don't know where to go.''

IExplore, based in Chicago, is backed by a number of venture capital firms, including one founded by financier George Soros, as well as Tribune Co., a major media company and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The company charges commissions of 10 to 20 percent to the tour operators that run the trips booked through iExplore.


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